Survival TV vs. Reality

Reality of Real Survival Training

Learning to Survive in the Wilderness can be Fun, Challenging, and Cause Little Stress. This philosophy is very much at odds with Survival Television that needs to make a Survival Situation dangerous, scary, and very stressful so that its audience is entertained. Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble, but anyone can live reasonably comfortably for 30 days at -40° c without food or a sleeping bag. However, the TV show would be very boring and the ratings poor, hence the drama!

Learning to Light a Fire with a Striker, a real Survival Skills

Who would want to watch a television show where survivors melt snow each morning for a cup of water and then go and collect the days’ supply of wood? There would be no fleeing the wilderness before the helicopter or aircraft shows up, a moving target is always harder to find. No one would need to drink their own urine, nor would you have to see that scene previewed again and again.

No one would be voted off the island, as we are all going to survive better if we work together. Instead, we would setup a regular daily routine of collecting wood for the fire, water to live, and improving the shelters. We would work towards being rescued each day, but keep our activity to a minimum. Survival can be a challenge, but the reality is far from what is shown on TV.

So why do we watch these shows and why do most viewers believe that what they watch is reality? To understand this phenomenon better let’s look at these shows in more detail. Survival TV shows can be broke down into three main groups; Game Shows, Hyper and Dangerous, and Entertainers with Actual Survival Skills.

Game Shows

This group of shows is the least dangerous, mostly because they are so far from reality that most people do not watch them to learn survival skills. They avoid cold climates which would eliminate the bikini shots and toned abs that make them money. They do not teach any true survival skills at all. They are simply scripted Reality TV. Nothing but a game show filmed in an exotic location.

The object is to eliminate everyone with real survival skills as quickly as possible to increase the chance of being the one who wins the prize at the end. What a prize! You have helped to wipe out the only people that could really help your group to survive. The whole premise is both sad and counterproductive to the teaching of survival. The truth is that groups working together will always survive better than an individual.

Hyper and Dangerous

This group of shows is the most dangerous type. Host(s) go into the wilderness with a film crew and “…show you how to survive in this dangerous environment.” First of all, the host(s) need to hype up what is going on and make the situations look very dangerous or you may simply turn the channel. Secondly, they need to do a lot of things to make each episode interesting.

This combination of speed and perceived danger means that you learn far less about actual survival and watch more needless action. Did he really have to jump into the raging river? Did he really have to drink his own urine? In most case no; it was just needless hype which often leads to questions about the “reality” of these shows. It makes one contemplate whether or not what they see is really what is happening?

Watch a little of the behind the scenes footage or consider looking at the number of complaints of fraud levelled against the most popular of these shows. They have nothing to do with survival training at all. No one has a safety man that travels with them and can secretly rope you up so you cannot slip.

If it’s that dangerous, it has nothing to do with survival training. You need to learn to make realistic risk assessments in the wilderness. By showing an edited and clipped view, it sets a very bad example. Since Leadership by Example is the only Real Leadership, how many people will follow these examples in real situations? These types of shows are not reality, but well scripted and directed entertainment being filmed by a professional film crew.

Entertainers with Actual Survival Skills

These individuals do have something to offer, but must first and foremost, they have to entertain. They are two parts entertainment and one part survival training. If they do not work this way, then they will not get ratings, will get quickly cancelled after their pilot episode or will not be back for another season.

Unfortunately, scenario locations and the items chosen to be taken along on each episode are more improbable as the series goes on. Why would a sea kayaker in Alaska have taken a Fire Piston along, but not have a striker or matches? Why would you take a harmonica along into the wilderness, but leave behind a pot? Since the most common item taken along in real survival situations seems to be a pocket lighter, why not have one along?

Why would someone travel into the arctic without a satellite phone or rescue beacon? No pilot would risk losing their licence by dropping off an individual from the south so he can wander around for a week. It does not work that way north of the 60 parallel.

Most episodes teach one or two specific skills. If you watch closely you will see that they create the “scenario” to show off these skills and help the “presenter(s)” in succeed in showing you these skills. From these shows, you can really learn a few things, but you need to listen and watch very carefully to ensure you are picking up the right skills.

The Reality of Real Survival Training

Stranded in the wilderness I would not start my day by announcing that I am going to starve to death, after all no one is going to starve to death in a week! Next build a slingshot and wander around a swamp looking for something to eat for a few hours. Finally coming back wet, cold, and tired a few hours later with no food. Wasting calories that could be better used productively.

I certainly would spent that time ensuring my shelter was well-built against the rain, safely away from a river, and looking for fire wood for the coming night. Unfortunately in these situations, it’s the picture that important, not survival. The saddest comment on Survival TV I ever heard was “…in a real survival situation I would not do this…”, so why not show us what you would really do?

Real survival training takes effort, but does not involve hype at all. It can be fun, build confidence, and can be very useful in rough times. It has one thing that Survival Television can never ever have; it’s hands-on. It’s being in the woods lighting a fire, building a shelter, looking for water, and facing the Survival Environment.

The true difference is that at -40° C, a person is able to sit comfortably by a fire with a waist high pile of firewood inside a well-built survival shelter. They can have a smile on their face and know that they can survive by not relying on what some guy on TV says. Survival TV is entertainment. Professional Survival Training teaches confidence-building lifesaving skills that can only be truly learned in the wilderness.

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Chief Instructor of the Boreal Wilderness Institute